Thompson finds success with the Golden Knights after a long road to the NHL

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After winning the Cup in 2018, the Washington Capitals brought it to their training facility during their offseason development camp. Thompson, a then-21-year-old goaltender who was invited to camp as an undrafted free agent, watched Washington’s prospects closely but chose to admire him from afar.

“I was just an invited person,” Thompson said. “So I thought, ‘Oh, that’s cool,’ and then I left.”

Four years later, Thompson is nobody. The 25-year-old rookie is the No. 1 goaltender for the Vegas Golden Knights, coincidentally, the team the Capitals defeated in the 2018 Stanley Cup Finals. 3-2 overtime win at Capital One Arena.

Jumping on an opportunity created by Robin Lehner’s injuries and Laurent BrossoitThompson is 5-2-0 with a 1.73 goals-against average, .938 save percentage and two shutouts in seven games, helping Vegas to a 9-2-0 start under first-year coach Bruce Cassidy.

“I think across the team, this is the start we wanted,” Thompson said. “It took us a bit of time to understand the new system, but since then our team play has improved quite significantly compared to last year. Me being a goalkeeper is how much things have changed and how much easier my game has been.

Thompson credits Vegas’ style of play, which pressures opponents in the offensive zone and keeps them out in the defensive zone, for much of his early season success. But he did his part with timely saves, like when the Golden Knights were outshot 11-8 in the second period on Tuesday but allowed just one goal in that span.

“He was fantastic,” said the defender Shea Theodore, who scored 1:35 into overtime on Tuesday. “A lot of times he’s stood on his head on A-level chances that we give up. It’s always nice to have him backing us up and we’re comfortable with him there.”

The goaltender was Vegas’ biggest question mark heading into this season after learning in August that Lehner would miss the season after hip surgery. While Brossoit was also recovering from hip surgery, Thompson was the default No. 1 to start the season.

Thompson played in 19 NHL games in the second half of last season, going 10-5-3 with a 2.68 GAA, .914 save percentage and one shutout. But it wasn’t clear if he could handle a No.1 goalie workload, so Vegas acquired Hill of Adin in a trade with the San Jose Sharks on August 30 for support.

Video: ANA@VGK: Thompson saves 29 shots in 4-0 win

Hill also got off to a good start (4-0-0, 1.72 GAA and .940 save percentage), but the No. 1 job looks to be losing to Thompson, even with Brossoit nearing his return after starting a conditional loan. at Henderson of the American Hockey League on Monday.

“You see all this noise and what every pundit and data analyst had to say about me, and it definitely motivates me to keep doing what I’ve been doing and proving people wrong,” said Thompson. “But it’s great fun for me to play hockey every day.”

This approach has served Thompson well since he went undrafted despite a solid career in major junior with Brandon of the Western Hockey League, Vegas first invited him to attend the first camps of development and expansion team rookies in 2017, but opted not to sign him.

After his final season with Brandon in 2017-18, Thompson was invited to Capitals development and rookie camps. It was then that he met Capitals goaltending coach Scott Murray and their minor league goaltending coach Alex Westlund (now the Detroit Red Wings’ goaltending coach).

“I actually don’t think I would be here today without those two,” Thompson said.

But Washington had six guards under contract at the time and no room to sign Thompson. After failing to find an ECHL team to take him, Thompson headed to Brock University in St. Catherines, Ont., to study sports management.

“I was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to have fun and be a college student and go party and be a kid again,'” Thompson said. “Fortunately, we had a pretty good hockey program at Brock. (Coach) Marty Williamson made a pretty good team that year, so we were winning games and I was having a lot of fun and not thinking about the NHL or anything like that.”

After going 18-6-0 with a 2.22 GAA, .934 save percentage and three shutouts at Brock, Thompson was named College Athletics Goaltender of the Year and Rookie of the Year. of Ontario. This led to an amateur tryout contract with Adirondack, the ECHL affiliate of the New Jersey Devils, after his college season ended.

Thompson played eight games with Adirondack (2-4-1, 2.72 GAA, .918 save percentage) and one with Binghamton in the AHL (22 saves in a 5-2 loss to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton) and was released before signing his first professional contract with Hershey, the Capitals AHL affiliate.

Thompson spent the 2019-20 season with South Carolina in the ECHL sharing the net with minor league veteran Parker Milner.
At Thompson, Milner saw raw skill, height (6-foot-4, 205 pounds), and athleticism. Murray and Westlund helped Thompson exploit those strengths by honing his technical game.

What impressed Milner the most, however, was Thompson’s work ethic and mental toughness.

“The ECHL is just a really good training ground,” Milner said. “It tests you mentally. The schedule is brutal. He was supporting me and often following me the second night in a row. He wouldn’t be the first to fall behind, quite easily, it can happen, and he just had this mental toughness and that level of competition to, rather than back down from those challenges, to really step up and play even better during them.

“For me, that’s the biggest thing that separates the guys and can take them to the next level.”

Thompson was 23-8-1 with a 2.25 GAA, .929 save percentage and three shutouts in 32 games in 2019-20 before the ECHL season was ended by the coronavirus pandemic. But his play has rekindled interest from the Golden Knights and from general manager Kelly McCrimmon, the coach and general manager in Thompson’s first two seasons with Brandon. They signed him to a two-year entry-level contract on July 13, 2020.

Thompson went 16-6-1 with a 1.96 GAA, .943 save percentage and two shutouts in 23 games with Henderson to win the Baz Bastien Memorial Award as the AHL’s top goaltender in 2020-21. He also made his NHL debut with Vegas in a relief appearance against the Minnesota Wild on March 10, 2021.

A bigger opportunity in the NHL presented itself in the second half of last season. Although the injury-riddled Golden Knights failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs, that experience and playing for Canada at the 2022 IIHF World Championship in Finland fueled the Thompson’s belief that he belongs in the NHL.

“I didn’t see him last year play anything other than in a movie this summer, but what impressed me was his confidence,” Cassidy said. “He’s got a swagger in front of the net. He’s a good athlete in that, but he’s still calm and, for a young man, he has good technical merit in his game.”

Thompson acknowledges that his rise has been rapid since signing his first professional contract three years ago. But having struggled before that to find a place to play, he doesn’t take it for granted to have one with Vegas.

Maybe that will eventually lead to him being in the same room with the Stanley Cup.

“It stinks when you’re not drafted or always being told you’re not good enough,” Thompson said. “You have to use that as motivation. There are tons of talented hockey players, but you definitely have to work and that’s one thing I’m happy with, how hard I worked.

“And I’m not going to stop.”

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